Last week, my sister and I were feeling particularly brave, young, and healthy, so we did what those sorts of people do: we packed up all five of our children and drove across the state of South Dakota to the Black Hills. Of course, upon arriving, we discovered that while we still could be considered brave, we were not feeling particularly young or healthy — in a mental capacity, that is. But we have gone and we have returned, and I’m feeling a bit more rejuvenated for the effort.
Because I grew up in South Dakota, the Black Hills tended to be an obvious vacation spot. I went out there each year during high school for a church summer camp, and vacations followed after that. In fact, I tried to count the number of times I’ve been out to “the hills,” and I came up with a number of 15, at least. I’ve seen Mount Rushmore more times than I probably need to. I’ve driven about every curvy, pine-lined road out there. The highway numbers there are as familiar to me as my own local street names. The odd thing is that a trip to the hills seldom gets old. In fact, it only gets more magical.
Any native South Dakotan knows that the land between Sioux Falls, on the east side of South Dakota, and Rapid City, on the west side of the state, is really a no man’s land. There’s not much to look at aside from a sprinkling of small towns and a lot of grassland. Because I’ve taken this journey so often, I’ve tended to break the trip down into sporadic interesting parts — the parts I look forward to along the way. For instance, the journey from Sioux Falls (where we started) to the Missouri River (Chamberlain) is not that bad, because the trip’s just beginning and the diversions are fresh. It’s actually a surprise when I-90 begins to curve and the car begins to descend into the Missouri river valley, because until that point, the land has been so flat that you were sure it’d never end. All of a sudden, your eyes are treated to a beautiful expanse of rolling hills surrounding a wide, sparkling blue river. It’s a shot of caffeine for the brain, really.
All who have made this trip know that once you hit Chamberlain, the logical stop is Al’s Oasis. Part rest stop and part tourist trap, Al’s Oasis is a traditional stop every time I’ve headed to the hills. There’s a decent restaurant and a smattering of shops to test your spending willpower before you get to your actual destination of the hills, where you’ll REALLY need such willpower, unless you enjoy buying every worthless trinket known to man. (If that’s the case, make sure to stop at Wall Drug, for which you will see about 80 billion signs along the I-90. Free ice water! the signs scream. 5 cent coffee! Can’t miss it! Well, I usually do, but that’s because one visit was enough for me.)
Once leaving Al’s Oasis, it’s important to get the good stash of music, movies, and other distractions ready, because this is where the trip takes a monotonous turn. Travelers will see a lot of prairie, and then some more prairie, and then a little more prairie, and just when you thought you couldn’t stand any more prairie, a little more beyond that. It’s pretty dull. However, just when the brain is beginning to pickle itself with prairie views (there’s a reason that homesteaders suffered from “prairie fever”), that’s when the Badlands come into view on the horizon. The smart traveler will veer off the Interstate to drive through the Badlands because there is nothing like it. Not only will it pamper your eyes with raw beauty, but the trip through the park will riddle your brain about the creation of this earth and why, in the middle of the prairie, this outcropping of hellish rock formations pops out of nowhere.
After the trip through the Badlands, the Black Hills lie only about another 80 miles away. Any questions got how the hills got their name will disappear once they come into view on the horizon, for they do indeed look black.
As I’ve said before, a trip to the Black Hills is nothing new for me. However, I never tire of exploring them, mainly because of the history they hold. The hills is where Gutzon Borglum spent 12 years creating one of the world’s most awe-inspiring works of art, Mount Rushmore. Towns like Deadwood hold the history of the nation’s cowboy days, where icons like Wild Bill Hickok lived and died; and scattered within the hills are towns founded by miners who dared to live the epitome of the American Dream and enjoy the pursuit of happiness. Evident in every part of this natural wonder is the reason that Native Americans consider the Black Hills sacred.
We rented a cabin in Terry Valley, which is right next to Terry Peak – a popular skiing resort. Renting a house in the hills just makes the experience so much more magical, for we had no neighbors for most of the time we were there, and we were able to explore and enjoy the pine-scented air. Every other time I’ve visited the hills, I had gotten a hotel room in one town or another, but that’s no way to enjoy the Black Hills. Rent a house or a cabin in a beautiful spot, and spend a lot of time outdoors — not stuck in a hotel room watching the same HBO you can watch at home. Go on a cave or mine tour; visit the town of Lead and see the legacy of the Homestake Mining Company; spend a day in Deadwood and follow the legacy of gun-totin’ cowboys; drive through Custer State Park and look for the buffalo herd; gaze up in wonder at Mount Rushmore; hike through the wilderness; rent a boat and soak in the sun at Lake Pactola . . . whatever you do in your lifetime, make time to visit the Black Hills.
This is not a public service announcement, but it should be.
And now for some visual entertainment. It’s not much — just a short collection of video and pictures from the trip. The video is small, as I didn’t have hours of my life to devote to uploading a larger version. But hey — it gives you a little sampling of the hills and the Badlands, if you’ve never been there. It’s a vacation on a screen, all set to John Hiatt’s “The Open Road.” Enjoy!